So Many Books, Too Little Time

My motto should be:  “ Quot Libros, Quam Breve Tempus” or so many books, so little time.

My patron saint is Henry Bemis.

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In case you don’t know Henry Bemis, he was played by Burgess Meredith in a very famous episode of Twilight Zone, “Time Enough at Last” about a super-bookworm, Henry Bemis.  Henry was a bank clerk who never could find enough time to read, until the world came to an end.

I never can find enough time to read either.  It’s a life of quiet desperation for words.   I have more unread books on my shelves than I will be able to read if I lived to be 100.  I also have a book buying addiction – I buy 7-10 books for every one I read.  I’ve always rationalized I will read them someday, but at 60, I know that’s not true.

I had an epiphany the other day.  I was flipping through some free books I had picked up and it dawned on me that I will never run out of something to read, even if I didn’t own a single book.  I have access to so many free or cheap books, that owning books doesn’t matter anymore.  I even pictured myself finishing a book and just leaving it where someone else could find it, and then stumbling onto my next read.  There’s a service for leaving books for other people to find called Book Crossing.

There’s also a movement called Little Free Libraries, where people build tiny waterproof libraries to give away books.  They put them in public places, or in front of their homes, with a sign “Take a book, leave a book.”  I wonder if I built a little free library box for my yard, would there always be a book in it I’d want to read when I finished my current book?

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Where I work we’ve had a free book table for years.  I always find something to read there.  Today I snagged The Victorians by A. N. Wilson, and Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind by David Berreby.  Yesterday my friend Ted handed me Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  Before that I brought home The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman.  Don’t be too impressed, I doubt I’ll actually read them, but like Henry Bemis I dream of the day when I could.  Ted is giving away hundreds of books.  Over the years so have I.

I’ve also rediscovered libraries, and my main library now has a used bookstore as part of the library.  So there’s a library book sale every day except Sunday.  It’s classic section always has at least one book I’ve always wanted to read.  Last Saturday I came home with five such books, for about $9.

And even if I couldn’t find a free book, there’s never been a time I’ve walked into a bookstore and not found a book I wanted to read.

This makes me wonder why I hoard books.  Generally I don’t read books off my bookshelves because I’m always hearing about a new book I want to read.  Serendipity always selects my next read, so why should I bother gathering books to somehow plan my future reading?

Well, it’s an addiction.  Not a bad one.  I don’t have to steal to keep up my habit.  The worse aspect about it is my house fills up with books and I have to decide which ones to give away.  That’s what I’m doing this week.  So far I’ve brought five cloth bags of books to the free book table at work.  The fall classes start this week and they will disappear quickly.

Another source of books is friends.  I know enough bookworms telling me about great books that I could mooch off of them for the rest of my life.

There’s also an Internet service called BookMooch.  You list books you want to give away by mail and people contact you.  You earn points towards mooching books off of other members.  I have access to so many free books that this service wouldn’t help me, but people living where books were hard to find should love it.

And just remember the new world of ebooks.  Feedbooks and Manybooks fills my Kindle and iPad with classics and public domain books.  And Books on the Knob daily reports all the great free ebooks that are available.   My library provides me with free ebooks to check out, and Amazon Prime lends me free books too.

I could reduce my bookshelves down to one volume, a Kindle, and never have to worry about finding something to read again.

I don’t think I’ll give away all my books.  I have too many I keep for sentimental reasons, but I do think I might try overcoming my book buying addition.  There’s no reason to hoard books.  Well, I can think of one reason.  If the world came to an end like in the Twilight Zone show, it would be great to have a stockpile of books to read if I was a sole survivor.

JWH – 8/21/12

What If I Only Bought Books Just Before I Read Them?

I’ve always bought books far faster than I could ever read them.  That’s always been true for physical books, and it’s even truer for audio books and ebooks.  I just can’t pass up a bargain, like Audible.com’s recent sale that priced hundreds of audio books at $4.95 each.  I bought 10 and I’m thinking about buying more, even though I have 60-80 audio books I haven’t listened to yet because of previous sales.  Now my Kindle is filling up full of ebooks waiting to be read.

Amazon has been offering 100 ebooks each month for $3.99 or less.  Plus Books on the Knob keeps me informed of a constant stream of free ebooks and ebooks at bargain prices.  And SFSignal announces almost daily free SF/F/H ebooks to try.  There are so many free ebooks deals out there, and not just crappy books, but books worth reading, that it would be possible to never buy another book again.

I already own more books than I have time to read even if I lived to be 100.  I’m a book addict.

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I know why writers and publishers give away ebooks.  They want exposure.  New writers wants readers.  I’ve read blogs by new writers who say when they price their books free hundreds and even thousands of them get downloaded.  Of course, they also say, when the put a price back on the books, the downloads slow to a trickle, but that trickle is more sales than they got before they offered their books for free for a few days.  Even established writers offer some of their books for free hoping to get attention for their other books.

I’ve yet to read any of the free ebooks I’ve collected.  And I’ve only read a handful of the bargain priced ebooks.  And I wonder if I’m typical?  Does free ebooks just inspire a kind of hoarding and not reading?

If I was practical I’d only buy a book just before I was ready to start reading it.  Now this is like believing I’m only going to eat food that’s good for me, but it is quite logical.  Even if books were $50 each I would save a tremendous amount of money if I only bought books I actually read.

What if all readers actually followed through on this practically plan of book buying?  What percentage of book sales go to unread books?  What percentage free books get read?

Maybe I just like shopping for books.  Maybe I just like reading book reviews.  Maybe I could find a way to collect books I want to read but probably won’t, without buying them.  I’m in a book club and I made up a list of potential books to read and found that very enjoyable.  I even like rereading the list.  I could build a virtual library of the books I think I want to read.  Growing up I wanted to own a bookstore.  Maybe that’s why I hoard books.  I also worked in a library for years – that could also explain my instinct to collect books.

If I bought books only just before I read them would I feel the need to collect them afterwards?  If I become just a reader can I divorce myself from my collecting instincts?

Also, if I bought books just before I read them how would that change my life?  I’d have more money and time, but what about the subtle changes?  I spend a lot of time shopping for books, reading reviews, looking for bargains.  There’s a table at my work we’ve designated as the free book table and people bring in books they want to give away and leave them on the table.  I’m all the time looking through those books, often taking many, but seldom reading them.  My public library has a used bookstore within the library that I like to visit too.  I guess if I spent less time shopping for books I could actually read more.  And I’d spend less time pouring over online sales and book catalogs.

All of this sounds very practical and positive, but I don’t know if I can give up my book hoarding addiction.

JWH – 3/10/12

Rethinking Ebooks

The other day I bought The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson because of a review I read by Eva at A Striped Armchair that was so compelling that I had to buy the book.  I went to Amazon and found the trade edition for $12.21 while the Kindle edition was $9.87, and I thought for $2.34  I’d spring for the beautiful New York Review Books Classic paper edition.  Now that I have that book in my hands, which is a very nice trade paper copy, I’m wishing I had gotten the Kindle edition.  Or waited until just when I was ready to sit down to read it before buying it.  I’m finding several ways the Kindle is making me rethink my book buying and reading habits, and I’m not sure publishers and writers will like these changes.

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The addiction to own beautiful books is one thing, but to read them is another problem, and I’m discovering that it’s much easier to read books on my Kindle.  Mainly I’ve been using my Kindle to get free and cheap books, because I’ve always liked to collect books, and owning the Kindle edition doesn’t feel like I own the book.  This is an emotional conflict.  I like holding the real book until it’s time to sit down and read, and then I wished it was on my Kindle so it would be easier to hold and easier to read because I can magnify the font.  But I hate the thought of spending $9.99 for electrons.

Ebooks look better on my iPad, but it’s actually harder to hold than a hardback.  Ebooks are easiest to read on the Kindle.

I took some extra days off here at Christmas and I’m cleaning  up my bookshelves today to make room for all the books I’ve bought in the last few months that are just sitting in piles around the house.  Which brings me to problem #2.  I buy far more books than I read.  I figured I’ve got 40-50 years worth of books waiting for me to read.  I really should stop buying books altogether.  Especially since of the 50-60 books a year I do read, most are listened to as audio books. 

Okay, I’m crazy.  Yes, my name is Jim, I’m an addict.  I’m addicted to book buying.

If I was wise, I’d stop buying books in 2012.  Or not buy any book until I’m in my chair ready to read at which time I can order it from Amazon.  The Kindle really does facilitate a chain reading habit.  Finish one book, order another and start it in 30 seconds.

Collecting ebooks is just plain no fun.  If Amazon kept all my books online in some kind of virtual library where I could admire their number, see their colorful dust jackets, and flip through their pages and feel like Midas with his pile of gold, then maybe it would be fun. But as it stands now, my growing number of books on my Kindle is only annoying because it makes finding a particular book more difficult.  Note to Kindle developers – invent some kind of interface for organizing books into various collections and topics.  Just archiving isn’t good enough.

If I become a total Kindle reader then I’m not going to buy books way ahead of time.  I’m going to assume that anything I want to read that’s in print as an ebook will stay in print as an ebook and I can get it when I actually feel like reading it.  I doubt the Amazon planned for this when it started pushing ebooks.  They probably thought we’d buy books just like we’ve always had but just electronically.

Instead of buying ebooks ahead of time, I might just download the sample chapter.  That will leave a place holder that reminds me that I want to read that book someday.

I bought two more books today, and all my Christmas presents I’ve asked for from my wife are books.  But the two I bought today are picture books, books about western films.  That’s not something I’d want to read on the Kindle.  But I would like them on the iPad if they were fully multimedia.  Whoops – Amazon doesn’t sell iPad app books.  I bought a special iPad edition of The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True by Richard Dawkins.  I’m not sure it would even look good on a 7” tablet like the Kindle Fire.  Now I have to worry about two virtual libraries – one at Amazon, the other at Apple.  And the book by Dawkins is an app, so it won’t even be in the iBooks library.  What a pain for the future.  I’m also thinking about buying the multimedia edition of On The Road by Jack Kerouac, but now I wonder.  How do I save such books for the rest of my life?

I have a wall of books that sits across from my La-Z-Boy where I read.  It’s quite wonderful to gaze at, and to think about all the wonderful books I have sitting there.  Old friends that go back to when I was a kid, and all the unread books that will be uncharted territory to explore.  What will it be like if my library was in the cloud?  Can computer programmers ever develop a virtual library that’s fun to gaze at, or offer just as much fun to pull titles down from a virtual shelf and flip through their pages?  I don’t know, but I suppose some brilliant young programmer will think of something.

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[click photo to enlarge]

First, ebooks have changed the way I read.  Now they are changing the way I buy books.  Next they will change the way I store and collect books in my lifetime library.  What will an ebook reader look like five years from now, or ten?  What are the possibilities of a virtual library?  And where will my virtual library reside?  At a bookseller’s server farm?  Or will I pay to keep them elsewhere?  Can we trust our lifetime of book collecting to Amazon, B&N, Google or Apple?  And would I want to have multiple libraries?  That’s already the case now that I have books at Amazon and Apple.  And will I continue to own books?  I stopped buying music because I rent it from music libraries like Rhapsody and Rdio.  Could that happen to books too?

Has anyone really thought what the ultimate results of ebooks mean?  If I stick with Amazon will it be around in 30 years, or 50?

I wish it was possible to rip books like it is for music.  Digital music is so much nicer to manage.  Whenever I move my collection of books and CDs they’re a pain in the ass to box, ship, unbox and re-shelve.  I wouldn’t mind the simplicity of going completely digital, but what will that mean?  If I was a child getting my very first digital book, what’s the chance of me keeping it my whole life?

One way publishers could solve this problem is to give away an ebook edition with the purchase of a hardback edition.

JWH – 12/19/11

What Does it Cost to Read a Book? How Ebooks will Change Book Buying Habits.

With hardback and paperback sales sliding down the charts while ebook sales rising, it appears the new paperback book is the ebook.  Unlike the past, where readers had to wait months or years for the paperback edition to come out, the ebook and hardback are now published simultaneously.  This is great news for readers until you realize what has happened is the price of a paperback has been increased.  You get to read it sooner, but it costs more – but the whole point of mass market paperbacks was to read books for less.

It used to be a book would come out in hardback, say for $25.99, and then months later, a $14.99 trade edition would come out, and finally after sales for the trade edition tanked, the $7.99 mass market edition would appear.  The cost of reading a book depended on how soon you wanted to read it after first publication.  Now we’re seeing $9.99-$12.99 or more for the ebook, but we get to buy it right away.  On one hand this seems like a very fair price, because it’s such a savings off the hardback cost, but on the other hand, you get nothing but electrons for your money. 

When you buy a hardback you have something physical that will last, that’s collectable, or nice to look at on a shelf, and makes a great gift, or is wonderful to lend to your friends, or even sell.  Even if you didn’t read the book, you had something when you bought a book.

Most people only read a book once, and if you’re buying ebooks, all you’re really getting is to read it.  An ebook will last, but if you only read a book once, it’s more like renting the book.

By the way, from now on when I mention pricing, I’m going to use Amazon’s for sale pricing and not list.

You’d think pricing would be based on what you get for your money.  The ebook would be the cheapest, then mass market paperback, then trade paperback and then hardback, because of the production costs and materials that go into creating the book.  And sometimes this happens.  For example The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is $6.35 ebook, and $7.99 mass market paperback.  But Isaac Newton by James Gleick is $11.99 ebook and $10.20 trade paperback – WTF?  Does that mean a mass market paperback only costs $1.64 to produce and the ebook costs $1.79 more than a trade paperback to create?  I don’t think so.

James Gleick’s newest book, The Information is $17.21 for the hardback and $12.99 for the ebook.   What Amazon is asking the reader, are you willing to pay $4.22 more to have a hardback copy, or would you just prefer to read it on your Kindle for $12.99. 

The list price of The Information is $29.95, which is probably what you’d pay at a brick and mortar store.  So the publisher probably thinks $12.99 is a great bargain for the reader, with $16.96 savings.  The author is probably thinking, at what price and royalty rate do I earn the most money.  The pricing of a book is a really hard math problem, isn’t it?

Me, I’m thinking something different.  I’m thinking:  What does it cost to read a book?   Once we enter into the world of ebooks, I’m essentially paying to read the book.  I don’t own anything.  I can’t sell my copy when I’m done with it.  I can’t lend it to a friend (even though they are working on that, but it’s not like owning a real book which I could lend over and over again).  I can’t put it on the shelf for others to admire my large library of great books.  I read the book, and more than likely, I’ll move it to archive on the Kindle, or even delete it so I have less cluttered interface to deal with.

You’d also think ebooks would be priced by the word, to take into account the cost of writing and editing the book, so that a 100,000 word book would cost twice as much as a 50,000 word book.  That doesn’t happen either.  Basically publishers are charging whatever they can get, and each has their own system for pricing.  With ebooks I think they are guessing what the demand will be, and if they think it’s high, they will raise the price accordingly – so a new ebook off the press might be priced $12.99.  But if they think they can sell more copies at the $9.99 price they sell it for that.  When demand goes way down, they will think about lowering the price.  That’s all understandable.

But ebooks is changing the habits of bookworms.  I’ve always bought lots of hardbacks, and never read many of them because I sit them on my shelf thinking one day I’ll find time to read them when I retire.  I’m just not going to do that with ebooks.  I’m going to buy just before I start reading.  I’m not even sure I could save an ebook for twenty years before I got around to reading it, but there’s just no pleasure in owning a bunch of books I can’t see.

And since I don’t feel “buying” an ebook is like “owning” a book, when I see the price at Amazon for the Kindle edition, I’m going to check the library first to see if there is a copy I can “borrow” because reading a book on the Kindle feels a whole lot like borrowing a library book – I’ll only see it as I read it.

Recently Amazon announced that they were selling more ebooks than hardback and paperback books combined.  I’m not sure the world is really ready for the implications of this.  Essentially bookstores, both news and used, are the side effect of bookworms, and not book collectors.  Real, hardcore book collectors are rare compared to the ordinary everyday bookworm that consumes books.  If we bookworms can get our reading electronically, what happens to the bookstore?  And once bookworms realize they are only paying to read a book, and get past the illusion of owning books, how they judge what a fair price is for a book will change.  I’m not sure if publishers are ready for this.

Finally, the move to ebooks is changing me in other ways.  When I shop for books now I realize I was fooling myself.  I’m not going to read all those books I bought.  I don’t really need my shelves of books because I’ve learned I’m a consumer of words, and not a collector of books.  Several times lately I went to buy a book and stopped myself, because I knew if I didn’t read the book right away there is little chance I’d read it at all.  I can’t plan for future reading because I read by what I’m hungry for at the moment.  This is also why I don’t buy ebooks when I see one I want to read.  That impulse is different from the impulse for picking a book to read right now.  With a Kindle, you can finish a book and download another and start reading immediately, and since finding books electronically is so easy, why not wait until it’s time to read the next book.

The future price of a book won’t be based on what the publisher thinks the book is worth, but on the price readers are willing to pay to read it next.

JWH – 5/24/11

Developing My Book Identity with LibraryThing

I’ve got my books cataloged into LibraryThing and I’m now having big fun playing with my collection.  The collection, 706 books, is starting to take on an identity as I tag the books into subject categories.  And I do mean, an identity, like a personal identity, because my library is public, and I’m getting hung up about its appearance.  For itself, and for how it represents me.

It’s book vanity I know.  I had a few books I was too embarrassed to put in, and I found I didn’t want to list my wife’s books because they weren’t part of my self-image.  And I’m thinking about culling some books because they just aren’t me.  But as I tag books into categories I realize those topics are the ones I’ve been fixated on my whole life.  Just how many people like to collect biographies of Jack Kerouac, Wyatt Earp, Bob Dylan and Philip K. Dick? 

Back in the 60s, they had a saying, “You are what you eat.”  Well, I say, “You are what you read.”

The LibraryThing collection represents my physical collection of books, but its also a snapshot of my lifelong personal interests.  Since I own books on subjects I’m no longer interested in, I’m thinking I should cull them from my collection.  There’s two conflicting desires here, (or sins).  The first could be called book gluttony, and the second, book pride.  Do I want to own a lot of books, or do I want to own the books that best paints a clear picture of who I am? 

LibraryThing is a very flexible database, and I could use it’s Collections feature to define more than books I own, like books I hope to read, books I want to buy, or books I’ve read but no longer own.  I could even create a collection “Books That Define Me” and list books I own and don’t own.  I could also create a collection called “It Ain’t Me Books” for my guilty pleasures.

The more I play with LibraryThing the more I realize how many ways I can slice and dice my book collection.  I sit in front of the LibraryThing page, press buttons and links, and make different piles of books to contemplate.  I love using it in cover image mode.  LibraryThing lets you select different size graphics for the covers, and I like the three row size.  It annoys me to see books with bad cover scans, or bummer of bummers, no covers at all. Again, I think this is a vanity thing.  I’ve gotten all hung up on having the same cover as the book I own, but some books I own don’t have dust jackets.  Should I show them with jackets when I don’t own them?  Some books have multiple dust jackets to choose from, would it be unethical to use a cover that I like better than the one I own?  One I’d like to see in cover view better, and one I’d like other people to see. 

Hell, you can judge a book by its cover!!!  And I want you to judge my books by their covers.

Some of my oldest books may never had had dust jackets.  I’ve never even seen photos of their dust jackets.  I’ve thought about creating covers for them with Photoshop.  Isn’t that weird?  I hate seeing the naked books in cover view mode.  LibraryThing offers a variety of generic book covers to use, but I don’t like using them.  I care more about how my books look than how I look.

So far I’ve been pretty honest and listed all but a couple books I own.  I won’t name the lame books I’m too embarrassed to list, but I probably should, just to truly reflect my honest book personality.  And I guess I should just scan my books without dust jackets to show what they really look like.  And I might allow myself to scan the book covers I have when my copies are better than the cover art within LibraryThing.  If LibraryThing was for book collectors, we’d have to catalog exact editions and photograph the specific books I own, but LibraryThing isn’t that exact.

I do wonder if the next time I’m at a bookstore if I’ll buy a book because it’ll make my book personality appear smarter, or because its cover will make it look more beautiful.  Vanity, all is book vanity.

JWH 2/16/10